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Arkansas voters have never demonstrated philosophical consistency, which is to say made any standard sense.

I can describe the phenomenon, which is not to say I can quite fathom it.

Arkansas voters are unfailingly populist in terms of broad issues. They'll side with the noble lowly working man every time.

But they are populist only in a superficial way that does not extend through a full ballot. They carry a simultaneous devotion, mostly from habit, to the familiarity of incumbency.

They elect judges for the reason that they are judges already. They now elect the default "R" to every office in sight with the same allegiance by which they elected the default "D" for generations.

There is the famous example from 1968. The voters of Arkansas favored on one ballot the racist populist George Wallace for president, the entrenched intellectual incumbent Democrat, J. William Fulbright, for the U.S. Senate, and the rich transplanted New Yorker incumbent liberal Republican, Winthrop Rockefeller, for governor.

Now they elect ultra-right legislators to go to Little Rock to keep Obama and Pelosi and them from ruining this country with all that San Francisco liberalism. Meanwhile, they embrace ballot issues that are decidedly populist, permissive and progressive--marijuana for medical use, casino gambling, and raising the working man's minimum wage.

So we get legislators who head to Little Rock appreciative of the rote allegiance that sends them, but regretful and resentful of the individual ballot decisions those people are otherwise making.

About the only thing this Arkansas General Assembly gets right is its prevailing sentiment that the voters of Arkansas have been making bad decisions lately.

But, even in that correct view, these legislators lack vital introspection.

For bad decisions by Arkansas voters, they should look merely at themselves, at this Arkansas General Assembly itself, inflicted with a few dozen examples of substandard humanity, still standing up for the Confederacy and the KKK, declining to give working poor people a credit on their taxes while lamenting their voter-mandated minimum wage increase, requiring women to give birth to their stillborn babies so they can grieve by a male-dictated timetable and threatening to do even worse if the state wasn't blessed with a semi-sane governor.

But no, these legislators contend that voters make wise decisions electing them while being woefully misguided on the issues that, alas, are over their heads. People are smart enough to elect me, but not enough to do my job--that's effectively the refrain.

What that produces is a Legislature that has to be talked down by the semi-sane governor and others from undoing by legislation the higher minimum wage the voters just approved.

And now it produces a Legislature that will give these misguided voters an opportunity, at least, to impair their ability to make laws themselves--because, you see, they are not worthy.

Last week these legislators voted by the requisite two-thirds majority to refer to the voters a constitutional amendment by which they would agree to make harder the process by which they could enact laws themselves at the ballot box.

Essentially, the amendment will have legislators as Archie Bunker talking to voters as Edith Bunker and saying "stifle."

To extend the metaphor: Edith was smarter than she looked.

What's happened in recent years is that certain gadfly progressives--by which I mean Little Rock lawyer David Couch and allies--have become highly sophisticated in the art and craft of getting proposed initiated acts and constitutional amendments qualified for the ballot.

They've mastered the prescribed method of signature-gathering and verification and timing. And they have used it to disturb rote allegiances and afflict the comfortable status quo.

Couch has led the way on the minimum wage and marijuana. He's coming next time with a proposal to wrest reapportionment and redistricting--i.e., gerrymandering for self-perpetuation--from the politicians and bestow it on an independent commission.

He's also probably coming with an amendment answering this latest legislative salvo, one by which he'd make it not harder, but easier, to get a question on the ballot for the voters' self-rule.

Voters thus would have the option to liberate or chain themselves.

This Legislature's proposal would triple the number of counties in which petitioners must meet signature requirements, require an earlier deadline for submission, and do away with a "cure period" in which petitioners can get more time to meet the signature requirement if a fatal number of signatures get rejected.

I'm not all that opposed conceptually to a higher threshold for qualifying issues for the ballot. But it needs to be, while rigid, attainable.

But I specifically object to these legislators seeking to impose this set of hurdles especially at the very time they also will refer a term-limits amendment exempting themselves from it.

Arkansas voters aren't doing any worse on deciding issues than they are in electing legislators. There is no compelling need at present for uneven and piecemeal correction.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 04/07/2019

Print Headline: JOHN BRUMMETT: Legislators versus voters

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